Thursday, 7 January 2010


The meerkat is a fascinating animal, elusive and misunderstood. First invented in 1962 by prize-winning physicist, Dr. Meera Katskill of Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent. While working on a project to separate the whites from the yolks in duck eggs, she mixed a bucket of egg-whites with hydrogen sulphate. Accidentally feeding the resulting mixture to a domestic cat, the animal was transformed into 37 small furry mammals. The new species was named the Katskill Moggy in her honour, which was shortened to meerkat in 1963.

In 1974, as a result of advances in meerkat sexual practices, the meerkat population grew to untenable proportions and the government - led by known meerkat hater Harold Wilson - signed a bill to ship the entire meerkat population to Johannesburg. Luckily, meerkats enjoy life aboard ship and none died on route to their new home. Once the colony was established in Africa, the meerkat population grew year on year until they were almost a native species. The warmer climbs did wonders for the meerkat's constitution and the extra hours of sunlight allowed the animals to grow to six foot in height. To compensate for this, all wildlife documentaries featuring meerkats are now shot from very, very far away.

Meerkats have many domestic and commercial uses. For example, their fur can be polished up to form a highly reflective surface and in Botswana they are often caught and tamed for the express purpose of providing elaborate vanity mirrors for children.

Baby meerkats are known as gibbets and a group of meerkats is often referred to as a vadge. Meerkats are also famed for their ability to tap dance, although they are notoriously shy creatures and will only perform if fed vast quantities of red wine and told how marvelous they are.

The anatomy of the meerkat is particularly interesting, in that they have twelve stomachs and no livers. Instead, their fifth stomach acts as a filtering system, ensuring that they are able to digest the pennies and handkerchiefs which make up the majority of their diet. It is this unusual configuration of internal organs which renders the meerkat incredibly buoyant, and because of this, meerkats are routinely used to fill modern life-preservers. The only down-side to this is that meerkats lose all buoyancy post-mortem, and so life preservers containing the live creatures have to be fed twice a day and given a good brushing with a stiff-bristled brush once a week.

Meerkats are incredibly intelligent, and are said to be the third brightest species in the animal kingdom, behind meal-worms and chihuahuas. Meerkats are also the only animals that are fully self-aware and as such, are achingly introspective. Some have even been known to write bad poetry and wear jaunty black berets. Not unlike some pretentious bloggers I could mention.

But meerkats make very poor house pets, due to their distinct lack of anger-management skills. For a brief period during the 1990s the official Blue Peter pet was a meerkat called Encephalitis, painted black and white to look like a boarder collie. But, after John Leslie mocked the meerkat's velcro shoes, Encephalitis saw red and bit him on the left buttock. Diane Louise Jordan, a keen amateur marksman who just happened to have brought in her shotgun, gunned the animal down and John Leslie was set free from the jaws of the beast.

Despite their terrible tempers, meerkats are very polite animals, conforming to a code of manners that most would now find old-fashioned. They only speak when spoken to, and as no one has ever bothered to address them, they have never found the need to chat. Doesn't mean they can't though, they just choose not to.

The main thing to remember with meerkats is that they are more afraid of you than you are of them. So, if you meet one in a dark alley of an evening, simply tip your hat in greeting and carrying on walking. And hopefully you won't find yourself in one of his twelve stomachs.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The rabbit with the face of a man

The strangest dream? I'm sitting in a beautiful garden, the kind of Edwardian English country garden that you often see on television. With climbing roses and a kitchen vegetable patch and a area of grass scattered with wild flowers and budlia bushes festooned with red admirals. And I'm wearing a starched crinoline petticoat under a bright blue dress. The stiffness of the dress makes it flare out, so that it is difficult to sit demurely on the picnic blanket, without looking like an upturned funnel filled with legs and frilly pantaloons. But somehow I manage to remain decent. Because that's what happens in dreams.

And it's incredibly quiet in the garden. Not in a eeiry way, nor in a fashion that suggest that something is about to happen. There is no anxiousness about this lack of noise. And I am not at all bothered by the lack of bird song, or the gentle buzzing of summer's insects. The calmness seems fitting here and the discomfort of my dress is but a passing thought.

But although I am sat on a picnic blanket, there is no finger-food banquet. Not even a solitary jam sponge. I feel a little bit cheated.

As I wonder which direction would most likely lead to the kitchens, a highly-couffiered magnolia bush bristles and shudders, and the silence of the garden changes timbre. Apprehensive now, I peer through the thick summer's air, fearful of what creature might greet my gaze. And a small brown rabbit appears. Only, he has the face of an old man. Wrinkled and liver-spotted and grey. As grey as if the creases of his face had been allowed to gather dust for a number of years. And these greying folds of skin merge seemlessly into the soft downy rabbit's fur of his neck. And I can't see the join. And I know that it's not just a man in a costume of fur. Because the rabbit is rabbit-sized. And the man's face atop it, is also rabbit-sized.

But the worse part is the ears. The long, twitching rabbit's ears that reach heavenwards, are mirrored by the large, flat, disk-like man's ears that also occupy his cluttered head. A head overcrowded with ears. Both sets far too big, with the lobes of his man's-ears stretching almost to the fur at his throat, as if they were melting clean off his head. And the rabbit's-ear soft and velvet-lined, like a magician's jacket, stretch and writhe and twist, searching for danger that may never come.

And I feel sick at the sight of so many ears on one head. And the proportion of man's face rabbit-sized. And fact that this most definitely is not simply a man in a costume.

Then, he cocks his head, and looks me square in the eye. And, with the voice of Bill Nighy, he splutters genially,
"Terribly sorry, I didn't know this plot was in use." And scampers back through the undergrowth.

I think I might be allergic to sleeping.